Everything is different this year. The next free agency window will come – but when. In the meantime, FIVE looks at some of the major franchises going into free agency period.
Record 2019-20: 48-24 || Conference Finals
4th Offensive Rating (ORtg) – 4th Defensive Rating (DRtg)
Big Three: J. Tatum, J. Brown, K. Walker
Draft Picks: 14, 26, 30 & 47 || Cap Space: zero
Goal: NBA title
After a successful 2019-20 season, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge will likely have a relatively quiet off-season. The club might go into the luxury tax for the first time since 2012-13 and could then only pay 5.7 million dollars (Taxpayer Mid-level Exception) for free agents. At the same time, Ainge has four picks in the NBA Draft while 14 players have guaranteed contracts (including player options), among them Gordon Hayward, who will very unlikely opt out of his final season at over 34.2 million dollars.
Chief strategist Ainge will most likely have to make do looking for young projects and helping the team’s three-point shooting off the bench.
Rumors: Paul Millsap, Avery Bradley, Aron Baynes
Record 2019-20: 43-23 || First round
1st ORtg – 18th DRtg
Big Three: L. Doncic, T. Hardaway Jr., K. Porzingis
Draft Picks: 18 & 31 || Cap Space: zero
Goal: Conference Finals
When the Clippers exited in the second round of the playoffs against the Nuggets, plenty of people in Dallas must have been thinking about their own showdown with the Clippers. The Mavericks were close to knocking off the title favorites but were without the injured Kristaps Porzingis as well as Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson. What if? This question could impact the plans of general manager Donnie Nelson and owner Mark Cuban.
The rebuild in the post-Dirk era went forward in warp speed. Luka Doncic advanced in his second season into an All-NBA First Teamer and MVP candidate and Porzingis got more and more accustomed to his own role alongside Doncic. Dallas’ offense in 2019-20 was the most efficient in NBA history and the bench worked as well. The only thing missing was a third scorer.
Can Tim Hardaway Jr. be the third-best player of a championship team? That is exactly what Nelson and Cuban will be asking themselves. If the wing picks up his option for another season (likely), then he is back in Dallas regardless. If he becomes a free agent, then the Mavericks bosses have a tough decision. Give Hardaway a longer deal or wait until the deeper 2021 free agency pool? Nelson has been planning for 2021 for a while.
As of now, he will have nearly 30 million dollars available to reel in a real star to Texas. Who could that be? Giannis Antetokounmpo is the big prize – unless he extends with the Bucks before that. A smaller solution could be for example Victor Oladipo or Jrue Holiday. But a lot can happen before 2021. Dallas will therefore likely practice patience this off-season unless they can bring in a real monster via trade.
Rumors: Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021
5th ORtg – 16th DRtg
Big Three: J. Murray, W. Barton, N. Jokic
Draft Pick: 22. || Cap Space: zero
Goal: NBA title
Some times things go so quickly in the NBA. At least that was the case for the Denver Nuggets. In 2018-19, they reached the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and then overnight they became a title contender in 2019-20.
The reason for the major improvement? Rarely – if ever – has a general manager drafted so successfully in the past few years as Denver’s Tim Connelly. He has selected five mainstays in his team’s rotation since 2014 with Michael Porter (13th pick in 2018), Monte Morris (51st, 2017), Jamal Murray (7th, 2016), Malik Beasley (19th, 2016) and Nikola Jokic (41st, 2014). You could also argue Connelly did a great job for the Utah Jazz, as he drafted and traded immediately Donovan Mitchell (13th, 2017) and Rudy Gobert (27th, 2013) to Salt Lake City as the Nuggets had no need at the time for a shooting guard or center.
Back to the future: The Nuggets realized their enormous potential in 2020. They are a title candidate who will look to do some fine-tuning in the off-season. Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee are important free agents, who in a cold market could very well be kept at reduced prices. Torrey Craig will be a restricted free agent but will likely not get an overly lucrative offer, and Jerami Grant has a player option of 9.3 million dollar, which he could look to opt out of for a bigger payday.
Denver’s roster for 2020-21 should look very similar to the one from the previous season. But Connelly will certainly play with the idea of improving the team’s defense and could eventually look at grabbing a third star. But the Nuggets might already have a third star on the roster in person of Michael Porter Jr. But both Porter and Bol Bol, the latter who showed good signs as a rookie, could be packaged in a trade for an All-Star who can play top level Three-and D.
Rumors: Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday
Golden State Warriors
30th ORtg – 26th DRtg
Big Three: S. Curry, K. Thompson, D. Green
Draft Picks: 2, 48 & 51 || Cap Space: zero
Goal: NBA title
The dynasty ended abruptly in San Francisco. Or was it only interrupted? Warriors general manager Bob Myers is hoping for the latter. After a cursed season without Klay Thompson (ACL) and mostly missing Steph Curry (broken hand), the franchise was “rewarded” with the second pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. And Warriors fans are hoping this pick can lead Golden State back to a place among the title candidates.
Will Myers trade the pick? If yes, with whom? Because the pick alone would not be enough to bring a star to the Bay Area. Would Andrew Wiggins – who was added for the 2019-20 season – be available? Speculation grew out of control after the lottery was drawn. The name most discussed was not one of the sexy candidates like Bradley Beal or Giannis Antetokounmpo though. No, the Dubs are reportedly interested in John Collins from the Atlanta Hawks. An athletic big man who can shoot threes? That would fit. Collins however would probably like to extend his contract in Atlanta this off-season.
A trade for an All-Star is likely only possible if Wiggins and his contract (until 2023 for a total of 95 million dollars) are part of the deal. But Myers will probably need to give up his No. 2 pick this draft and at least the 2021 first round pick from Minnesota. One further asset for Myers is a trade exception for 17.2 million dollars. Is there a team that wants to get rid of a player who the Warriors could use?
So, the Warriors’ architect could combine the No. 2 pick and the trade exception to bring in another key piece. But it seems unrealistic that they can add a superstar.
Rumors: Trading the second pick and Wiggins? John Collins, Aaron Gordon.
Record 2019-20: 44-28 || Second round
6th ORtg – 14th DRtg
Big Three: J. Harden, R. Westbrook, R. Covington
Draft Picks: None || Cap Space: zero
Goal: NBA title
The big explosion in Houston did not happen after the Rockets’ ousting of the playoffs by the L.A. Lakers. Head coach Mike D’Antoni did leave after four years, including one Conference Finals appearance and the unsuccessful attempt to play micro-ball. General manager Daryl Morey however is staying on as Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has left him in charge of finding a new coach as well as reinforcements for the roster.
But … from where will they come? Morey is one of the most innovative GMs in the league, making 73 trades since 2007. Under his leadership, the franchise has never had more losses than victories in a season. But he really doesn’t have many options for 2020. Houston has no draft picks as well as zero space under the salary cap. They basically can only trade a first round pick (2021 or 2022). But that is not enough to make a new start.
No, Morey – and his new coach – will have to rely on bringing in role players on the cheap and develop them in house like he did with Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore and Danuel House. But the current make-up of the roster – with its lack of big men – puts the Rockets in a tough situation. On top of that, the pairing of James Harden and Russell Westbrook is not an optimal one for the playoffs.
Should Houston break up the Harden-Westbrook star duo? Harden is untouchable while Westbrook could not find his game in the playoffs after a long injury break – not to mention that his contract runs until 2023 (the last season is a player option) and is worth 131.5 million dollars. Oh, and Westbrook will turn 32 on November 12. Who will want to take him on for that price? The New York Knicks could put together a package of veterans and youngsters. But do they want that? Would Morey want that or does he believe in the pairing of Harden and Westbrook?
Rumors: Trade Westbrook?
Los Angeles Clippers
2nd ORtg – 5th DRtg
Big Three: K. Leonard, P. George, M. Harrell
Draft Pick: 57. || Cap Space: zero
Goal: NBA title
The Clippers are the biggest disappointment of the 2019-20 season. Lawrence Frank and management went all-in with the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, shipping out five first-round picks to Oklahoma City for PG13. After picking up other help for that duo and still losing, the Clippers now face an uncertain future.
Los Angeles has already fired head coach Doc Rivers while Leonard and George can both be free agents in 2021. Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson and Montrezl Harrell all join the open market now, and JaMychal Green can opt out of his contract. The Clippers must try to keep that trio – or quartet – which would also mean paying the luxury tax. That might not be too much of an issue for owner Steve Ballmer, whose wealth is estimated at 76 billion dollars. Still, the market for the four players should not be too heated. Even Sixth Man of the Year Harrell is not highly wanted with his defensive problems at center.
So, will it be more of the same in Clippers land? The team will try to add reinforcements, maybe with a trade of Lou Williams, whose contract runs out in 2021. Otherwise, the most likely additions would be veterans on low salaries. But the question now is will those veterans want to play for a team that has shown a lack of togetherness?
Los Angeles Lakers
11th ORtg – 3rd DRtg
Big Three: L. James, A. Davis, K. Kuzma
Draft Pick: 28. || Cap Space: zero
Goal: NBA title
Anthony Davis’ pending free agency probably won’t cause too many worries in Lakers Land. The big man will opt out of his deal and then sign a max contract with the Purple and Gold – that is as certain as the Captain Obvious tweets from Magic Johnson.
But then the Lakers’ off-season will start getting interesting. Other than Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso (all contracts until 2021), all of the role players will be free agents or can opt out of their contracts. Among that group, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (8.5 million dollars) is the only one earning more than 5 million dollars.
What will they be asking for? How much could they earn elsewhere? General manager Rob Pelinka will definitely check out the market for veterans who want to join the Lakers at the end of their careers for open shots (thanks to LeBron) and a chance at a ring. A major acquisition would likely only be possible via a trade of Kuzma plus Caldwell-Pope or Green.
8th ORtg – 1st DRtg
Big Three: E. Bledsoe, K. Middleton, G. Antetokounmpo
Draft Pick: 24. || Cap Space: zero
Goal: NBA title
What does Giannis Antetokounmpo want? This question will define the Bucks’ 2020 off-season. What will he want? Well, the super-max contract extension. Milwaukee can offer him a new five-year contract for about 221.5 million dollars – starting in 2021-22 and with a salary cap of about 109 million dollars. The final value though would depend on the league’s salary cap.
Even though it could be a few million more or less, any opposing max offers would pale in comparison because the other 29 teams can only pony up a contract for four years and 141 million dollars. Antetokounmpo could, however, go somewhere else and sign for fewer years and then make up some of that lost money with another deal later – if the post-Covid-19 salary cap does increase.
In addition to the question if the MVP wants to stay long term – at this time it doesn’t look like he will – the future of head coach Mike Budenholzer is also uncertain. There is no doubt that Coach Bud is excellent during the regular season. The Bucks did after all win the most games in the league this season – and in 2018-19. But once again there was a disappointing early exit from the playoffs for a second straight season as well as a lack of tactical flexibility and a discussion about the minutes for Budenholzer’s stars (as in, not enough). All of that has left his standing in Milwaukee in doubt.
One thing is certain, general manager John Horst will have to incorporate his superstar in all major decisions. Horst will not have many possibilities though. Chris Paul has been rumored about going to the Bucks. Can Milwaukee get that kind of trade done? Yes if Oklahoma City is interested in for example Eric Bledsoe, Ersan Ilyasova, D.J. Wilson, Donte DiVincenzo and the 20th pick in this year’s draft.
Horst will be making plenty of calls because the playoffs showed that Milwaukee needs more playmaking and scoring from the point guard spot. In addition to a trade for a star, the Bucks also need veterans coming in for one year and not much money. But those types of players will be in high demand this off-season.
Milwaukee has plenty of homework to do to convince Antetokounmpo to stay with the Bucks long term. If he doesn’t, the franchise must look closely at the situation and if necessary make a deal at the 2021 trade deadline so that the team does not lose its star without anything in return.
Rumors: Chris Paul
New York Knicks
28th ORtg – 23rd DRtg
Big Three: R.J. Barrett, J. Randle, M. Robinson
Draft Picks: 8, 27 & 38 || Cap Space: Up to $50 million
Goal: Sustainable rebuild
Can the Knicks rebuild? The answer to this question since the summer of 2013 was been “no, not at all”. Knicks fans hope that will change under the new personnel boss Leon Rose. The former player agent hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach and has mainly young talent on the roster.
It’s conceivable that the Knickerbockers patiently build through the draft and pick up unwanted contracts and pay for that with first round picks and/or young talents. But the previous sentence also is why that may not work. In order to take on contracts to give a trade partner financial relief, you yourself have to be far enough under the salary cap. Far enough that the trade partner does not take on any similar salary hits.
How does New York look cap space wise? The Knicks could have a lot of space if they let go of Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock – all of whom have non-guaranteed contracts with the Knicks holding a 2020-21 option on Portis. The Knicks could then also add free agents with the nearly 50 million dollars freed up – possibly even a well-paid signing or numerous mid-level players.
There are rumors that things will be anything other than a patient rebuild with names like Fred VanVleet, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul and (gulp) Russell Westbook surfacing. Do Thibodeau and Rose want a quick success or rather use 2020-21 to let youngsters develop, draft cleverly and then possibly bring in veterans in the 2021 off-season? Will they maybe try to move up in the draft? It will definitely be intriguing … and hopefully the decision makers will have learned from the mistakes of the past.
Rumors: Fred VanVleet, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook
13th ORtg – 8th DRtg
Big Three: B. Simmons, T. Harris, J. Embiid
Draft Picks: 21, 34, 36, 49 & 59 || Cap Space: zero
Goal: NBA title
Let’s start with the bad news: The Sixers are the second-most expensive team in 2020-21 (after the Warriors). They fired their coach. Their two stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid don’t really seem to fit style wise. Al Horford and Tobias Harris will combine to make 61.8, 63.0 and 64.1 million dollars over the next three years, respectively. And the Sixers will not be under the salary cap (at the time of this writing) until 2022-23 at the earliest.
General manager Elton Brand did at least solve the coaching question, bringing in Doc Rivers, who was let go after the disappointment with the Los Angeles Clippers. As successor to Brett Brown, Rivers will likely know the direction of the franchise, meaning if they will trade either Simmons or Embiid.
It seems that moving one of the All-Stars is unlikely as the Sixers hope a new coach can bring in changes to the team’s offense. Brand will likely be listening to offers for Horford and/or Harris because they just make too much money for their performances on the court. But who knows? Maybe Rivers can change that as well.
One interesting move proposed by ESPN.com has the 76ers talking to Sacramento. Could a trade of Horford and Harris for Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes help both franchises? It will also be interesting to see what the Sixers do with their five draft picks for 2020.
Rumors: Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes